Of course the Legislature isn't listening. In theory as this article assumes is the members of the Legislature are public servants and work for the people. But in reality the members of the Legislature are elected kings or royalty who work for themselfs and the special interest groups that helped elect them.
Legislature isn't listening, citizens say
Matthew Benson and Robbie Sherwood The Arizona Republic Feb. 18, 2006 12:00 AM
Retirees turned away from speaking on bills. Hearing rooms where citizens try unsuccessfully to commandeer the microphone. Public testimony limited to barely a peep on some important issues.
What's going on at the Arizona Legislature?
Several high-profile confrontations during public hearings this session have left some critics to wonder whether the people's Legislature is becoming a little less for the, well, people.
Take Bonnie Ford. The 65-year-old Queen Creek resident made the 1 1/2-hour drive to the Capitol a week ago, joining more than 100 others who planned to oppose a Taxpayer Bill of Rights-style measure. But House Appropriations Committee Chairman Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, limited testimony to one speaker against the bill and one in favor.
"I couldn't help feeling that there was a lot of arrogance there," said Ford, a representative of the All Arizona School Retirees Association who was making her first trip to the Legislature. "It may make for a very long day, but I think people's voices need to be heard."
Adding to the frustration, Pearce didn't read into the record the names and statements of those who wanted to comment on the bill. Because of that, anyone watching the hearing might not have recognized the degree of public opposition.
Pearce is sponsoring the proposal, House Concurrent Resolution 2022, which the committee approved. He could not be reached for comment.
Chairpersons have authority to run their committees as they choose, and most say they try to manage things as efficiently and fairly as possible. This isn't the first session citizens have complained that they have been treated rudely or ignored when they step inside a legislative hearing room.
But a combination of factors - highly emotional issues, a compressed schedule with lawmakers attempting to finish early and a sprinkling of heavy-handed chairmen - has turned up the temperature this year.
"I think what the Legislature needs to remember is this is the people's Legislature," said Jack Lunsford, president and CEO of WestMarc and a 30-year veteran of Arizona lobbying on behalf of business, education and other interests. "I don't know that there's the level of sensitivity there used to be."
A flashpoint came Monday during a meeting of the House Federal Mandates and Property Rights Committee.
Feeling their public testimony had been squelched on a series of immigration bills heard in the past few weeks, members of the Valley Interfaith Network, a coalition of clergy and others advocating for generally left-leaning social issues, took their stand during an unrelated proposal on auto brokers.
Interfaith lobbyist Tom Donovan attempted to take over the microphone and read a letter of protest. Committee Chairman Rep. Chuck Gray, R-Mesa, gaveled him down and called security, while dozens of Donovan's supporters chanted: "Let him speak! Let him speak!"
Gray asked House security to clear the protesters from the room, restoring order.
At the time, Gray said the step was needed to prevent "mob rule."
On Thursday, Interfaith co-Chairman Dick White defended his group's actions. He said Gray routinely is cool to public testimony and noted that one Interfaith lobbyist had signed up to talk on 12 immigration measures over a two-week period. He was called to talk once for two minutes.
"If you can't get in when you're legitimately signed in on all 12 bills, then somewhere we have to break in and say this is not a Democratic process," White said. "If we don't take action, then they are just going to run roughshod and nobody gets a chance to be heard."
House Minority Leader Phil Lopes called the actions by Interfaith members "ill-advised" but said he understands their frustration and called the episode symptomatic of a greater problem.
"They believe they have been denied a voice," said Lopes, D-Tucson. "They have not been allowed to testify. They believe that this body turns a deaf ear to their viewpoints."
House Judiciary Chairman Eddie Farnsworth called the criticism "absolutely ridiculous" and dismissed it as "grandstanding." He said committee chairpersons must keep meetings moving, especially with the record nearly 1,600 measures introduced this session, and added that residents have many ways to get in touch with lawmakers
"The fact that there's a limited amount of time and the fact that people aren't allowed to speak for as long as they would like on every bill does not mean they don't have a voice," Farnsworth, R-Gilbert, said. "They have a voice in the elections. They have a voice with their individual legislators. They have a voice through e-mails. They have a voice through phone calls. They have a voice through letters. They have a voice through the media.
"They have a voice as loud as they want to make it. And the fact that somebody disagrees with what a chairman does, does not mean that the voice is stifled."
Some longtime legislative observers, however, suspect that the trend is toward less public input.
"Not only am I saddened by it, I hope they consider what it does to the public trust," said Lupe Solis, a lobbyist for the Arizona chapter of AARP. She has 15 years of legislative experience.
Sierra Club lobbyist Sandy Bahr said long-standing public frustration with the process has fueled a robust citizens initiative process in Arizona. Bahr said that typically issues that end up on the ballot as initiatives were first tried as bills at the Legislature. When Bahr began lobbying 16 years ago, there was more of a reform atmosphere with lawmakers opening up the process.
"But over time, I've seen a reversal of that," Bahr said. "There's always time to hear the Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, sometimes twice, but not enough time to hear a citizen who took a day off work to speak on an issue. I assume that certain committee chairmen are going to be rude and disrespectful to me, but I'm here as a staff person. When you do that to a citizen who takes time out of their day, who took time off of work, I think it's outrageous when they do that to people."
Even the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry, a group that usually wields its fair share of influence at the Capitol, has found itself on the outside looking in this session on certain high-impact immigration and budget bills.
Between two hearings this year, chamber lobbyist Scott Peterson was given three minutes to talk on a bill that would impose sanctions on employers that hire illegal immigrants. That's still three minutes more than the last time Peterson tried to comment on an employer sanctions bill two sessions ago.
Committee hearings are perhaps the best opportunity for lobbyists, advocates, opponents and everyday residents to stand before lawmakers and say their piece. From there, Solis said, bills are at the mercy of the rules and processes of the House and Senate and are less accessible, especially to average folks not savvy to the legislative machinery.
Sen. Carolyn Allen, chairwoman of the Senate Health Committee, commented Monday on the importance of giving people their say.
Though her committee meeting stretched on for several hours, she gave anyone who wanted to speak the opportunity.
After a lengthy discussion on medical malpractice, the Scottsdale Republican said: "I am known for letting people speak and I don't cut people off, because I believe on issues like this if people make the trip to speak they should be heard.